Indigenous, universal economics


The lecture which Professor Chinyamata Chipeta delivered at Unicaf University recently has received a good deal of publicity in the media. The gist of it is that Africa’s economic development would progress faster if it were guided by indigenous economics, and that text books written by western economists do take into account African cultures.

Professor Chipeta has a good reputation among alumni of University of Malawi, and the beyond. He has written on indigenous economics, a branch of economics not mentioned in the British and American economics textbooks that most people have read. Despite his eminence, it would be unwise for policymakers and others to accept his advice without reasoning.

If indigenous economics is widely known, why have African governments and entrepreneurs made no use of it. My guess is that Professor Chipeta must be one of the few Africans who are clear about this economic system.


The west has for the past 500 years been responsible for inventions which have been adopted all over the world, some with only minor modifications. Those inventions have been based on the physics, chemistry and biology developed in the west. Other countries have also used this knowledge to improve devices they have imported from the west. If the principles of economics learned from western textbooks have not done Africa much good, the fault is not with the principles but Africans themselves. They have tried to apply economic principles while neglecting universal principles of success. For example, hard work and frugality are universal desiderate for success.

In 1966, Jagdish Bhagwati, an Indian professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his book The Economics of Underdeveloped Countries stated that most Asian countries were trailing behind Africa, with regard to per capita income.

Sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, visited France and had an audience with president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Later, in his autobiography From Third World to First, Lee says the French president asked him “why Singapore had developed and not others, what was missing in the others? I could only tell him what I thought were three primary reasons: first, stability and cohesion in society; second, a cultural drive to achieve and a thrifty hardworking people always investing in the future with high savings for a rainy day and for the next generation, and; third, a great reverence for education and knowledge”. He was not satisfied that that was the complete answer.


Lee had graduated, from Cambridge University, in Law. Later, after having served for nine years as Prime Minister, he flew to Harvard University to seek advice from eminent economists there. Back home, annually, he used to invite a Dutch economist to go for consultations on what to do to develop Singapore. Like himself, his Singaporean advisor had obtained higher education in the west.

Why is Malawi trailing behind most countries in economic development and standards of living? Is it because it lacks stability of some sort? Not at all. But what about other conditions which led to Singapore’s success? Are they available in Malawi?

I have two heroes in modern western political h i story—Ma rg a r e t Thatcher of Great Britain and General Charles de Gaulle of France. They both took office when their countries were being called sick men of Europe.

Thatcher took office with clear notions about the causes of economic malaise in Britain. She saw trade unions as too powerful and unpatriotic, public corporations as inefficient and the civil service wasteful. She passed legislation neutralising the power of trade unions; she privatised the nationalised industries; she brought into the civil service the chief executive of Marks and Spencer to control public expenditures. She was denounced by those who were losing out through her reforms. But, 10 years later, Britain was back to prosperity, jobs multiplied. She won elections three times. When Tony Blair led the Labour government, he adopted Thatcher’s methods.

When General de Gaulle took office in 1958 at the invitation of the failed members of the National Assembly, he got a new constitution, which gave the president extra powers, drafted. He gave independence to African colonies, including Algeria, so that France could not waste time and resources fighting colonial wars. Ten years later, France had prospered and paid the debt she owed to America, France now had its own atomic bomb and was adopting a neutral stand in the cold war.

It will require more than indigenous economics for Malawi and other African countries to achieve growth rates such as the Far East has achieved.

To anyone aspiring to contest in the 2019 presidential elections, I say read the autobiographies of Margaret Thatcher, Charles de Guelle and Lee Kuan Yew and see if you can pick up a gem or two. One of those gems is to understand the crucial obstacles to development and creation of wealth in Malawi. Use all constitutional powers to remove those obstacles.

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